How much fun and games do federal websites need?

Are flashy interactive features really necessary for a government website to be considered "good?"


Among the many details coming out from the attack at the Pakistani compound where Osama bin Laden was killed, one in particular caught my eye. Intelligence personnel noticed that this multimillion dollar compound in a relatively (for Pakistan) upscale community didn't have any telephone or Internet service. In short, the house stood out for its lack of technology, which agents took as a red flag.

Hold it right there: What if this turns into a slippery slope for all security searches, where we each could become suspect based on a lack of current technology? I recently had a discussion with an editor at FCW who mentioned that he only watches three television shows. Does this make him suspicious? I have no cable TV service in my home. Am I redlined as a potential Bolshevik? Would my rural residential friends who still have dial-up service be fingered as  environmental terrorism suspects? Does owning a 19-inch television put you on the "suspected Luddite" list? Does my file get flagged for the "no smart-phone" folder?

Is there a level of technology expectancy that, should we not meet it, make us suspect in our communities? Of course I'm joking, but the thought does occur to me when I read critiques of government websites. It can appear that a certain inclusion of current technologies is expected, and anything less is reason for suspicion.

This came to mind in a recent discussion with the three-TV-show editor on ways for government websites to become more appealing to a generation who are used to gaming and social networking. As it was put, how does the government make boring topics more interesting to users that expect online interaction in the forms of gaming and social networks?

This led me on a search for good and bad government websites, the critiques of which is a cottage industry that I wasn't quite prepared for. Just as every person on the planet now has a blog, I think every web designer on the planet has been consulted for their thoughts on government sites' design. This is where the technology slippery slope appears again -- sites that don't keep up with current design trends are flagged and treated like the Abbottabad compound.

(As a side, one of the early checklist items in government websites -- before considering adding social media and gaming features -- is whether the government entity actually has a website. For example, 55 out of 86 Oklahoma counties do not have a site.

I could use this moment to point out that government technology employees now have another worry to add to their job list: Is their website hip enough? Does it contain the technologies du jour, and look as good as all the other websites? I tend to fall into the old school with my site preferences -- I am in search of information and any other users' experiences with this information -- and if it contains a cool map or photo on the link, or a thought-provoking conversation in the comments section, I consider it a bonus. I am slowly starting to dread good websites, as I often come back to consciousness several hours later, realizing that I have been clicking links for the afternoon and now have a thorough knowledge of the Maldives.

I guess the question is, are government websites -- even if already well-designed and easily navigable -- improved by adding more entertainment and interaction to them?

To be honest, some of the more poorly designed sites scream out for entertainment technologies. For example, a site that has been getting a lot of negative feedback is the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS).The site is full of security warnings, isn't highly compatible with browsers, and is as navigable as a bayou. This would seem like a perfect candidate for a Donkey Kong-like game, where users can "kill" poor-performing contractors and accumulate contract credits.

But would, where you can track Recovery Act spending, be improved if the spending map featured a high scores table and competition between neighbors?

And although I'd like to see it, I'm not sure the Postal Service site would be better with a transportation game where users can virtually race the USPS to see if they can get their parcel to its destination quicker.

On the other hand, the Defense Information Systems Agency's Base Realignment and Closure (DISA BRAC) information portal is a well-thought-out and designed site that was created to help provide information on the agency's headquarters relocation. It has answered every question anyone could have on the move. But I still think they could have included a game where users pack a virtual van, getting points as they fit more items into the van.

Another personal favorite, the CIA factbook includes a series of world trivia questions in the "What's new" table. What if it required users to answer the question correctly in order to connect to a link?

And, useful or not, I'd spend more time at the White House site if it included a "dress the President today" feature.